In a magnetic mirror, a configuration of electromagnets is used to create an area with increasing density of magnetic field lines at either end of the confinement area. Particles approaching the ends experience an increasing force that eventually causes them to reverse direction and return to the confinement area. This mirror effect will only occur for particles within a limited range of velocities and angles of approach, those outside the limits will escape, making mirrors inherently "leaky".
An analysis of early fusion devices by Edward Teller pointed out that the basic mirror concept is inherently unstable. In 1960, Soviet researchers introduced a new "minimum-B" configuration to address this, which was then modified by UK researchers into the "baseball coil" and by the US to "yin-yang magnet" layout. Each of these introductions led to further increases in performance, damping out various instabilities, but required ever-large magnet systems. The tandem mirror concept, developed in the US and Russia at about the same time, offered a way to make energy-positive machines without requiring enormous magnets and power input.
By the late 1970s, many of the design problems were considered solved, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory began the design of the Mirror Fusion Test Facility (MFTF) based on these concepts. The machine was completed in 1986, but by this time, experiments on the smaller Tandem Mirror Experiment revealed new problems. In a round of budget cuts, MFTF was mothballed, and eventually scrapped. The mirror approach has since seen less development, in favor of the tokamak, but mirror research continues today in countries like Japan and Russia.
The concept of magnetic-mirror plasma confinement was proposed in the mid-1950s independently by Gersh Budker at the Kurchatov Institute, Russia and Richard F. Post at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US.
With the formation of Project Sherwood in 1951, Post began development of a small device to test the mirror configuration. This consisted of a linear pyrex tube with magnets around the outside. The magnets were arranged in two sets, one set of small magnets spaced evenly along the length of the tube, and another pair of much larger magnets at either end. In 1952 they were able to demonstrate that plasma within the tube was confined for much longer times when the mirror magnets at the end were turned on.